Workout class

Virtual fitness apps vs in-person group exercise – which is the better workout?

Posted by for Strength

The convenience of VR workouts mean we can train from the comfort of our own homes –  but energy from a group session can also be a great motivator. Writer Bridie Wilkins explores how to utilise both to maximise your progress. 

More than 12,000 fitness clubs globally offer their guests a virtual option, there are upwards of 320,000 fitness apps available and the Peloton at-home bike phenomenon is worth a cool £6.5 billion. With 42% of people feeling nervous about returning to their gyms after lockdown, according to a survey from training brand FutureFit, this only looks set to increase. 

However, private gym memberships also grew by 15% from 2014-2019, the retention rate for existing members has remained consistent since 2016, and parkrun had the most registrations in the world for one event in London last month. Despite such balanced evidence, the idea that virtual fitness apps will render in-person group exercise redundant has gained serious traction, while their ability to work in tandem has largely been overlooked. 

Of course, there are pros and cons to both. The most obvious benefit of at-home exercise streaming is convenience. “Virtual programming is useful and often necessary when you can’t get to a regular group session,” says Laura Hoggins, head of brand at gym The Foundry, coach for fitness app FIIT and member of the Strong Women Collective

And in an age of always-on work culture, this is more applicable than ever. “I’ve always been a huge spin class fan,” says 28-year-old Steph, a member of premium interactive cycling app Peloton. “But after changing jobs, I found myself struggling to find classes that were at times I could make and was often relegated to a waitlist. The appeal of Peloton was that it offered the flexibility I was desperately missing.”

A 24/7 schedule is something that in-person training can’t provide, so by allowing you to maintain a regular regime that may not be possible with stipulated time slots, virtual workouts could pave the way for bigger or quicker achievements. “In my experience working with beginners in the female population, virtual sessions sometimes offer a gateway into group sessions and PBs,” says Laura. “It allows women to start training and gain more confidence in the comfort of their own homes.”

Ian McCaig, co-founder of FIIT – the highest-rated Apple fitness app – says that these achievements can also extend beyond regular exercise: “Gyms can be intimidating spaces for some women, and we’re able to offer an alternative that helps them explore what their bodies are capable of on their own terms. They may then feel more comfortable with the idea of working out in public and overcoming challenges – one of our most engaged users has recently completed a Tough Mudder.” Similarly, Peloton member Steph is using the app’s virtual running classes as a means to complete her first half marathon.

These kinds of events are often favoured for their sense of camaraderie – something that many argue can’t be obtained from virtual workouts due to the lack of human interaction. Could this explain why some women go elsewhere for their social fix? “No, Peloton has its own community,” says Steph. “Having the running instructors in my ear for my half marathon training feels just like I have a coach cheering me on, and I join members from all over the world for regular rides. I have made genuine friendships since owning a Peloton bike and there is definitely a sense of community spirit through leaderboards, where we often give each other virtual high-fives to celebrate successes.”

On the other hand, Andy Magill, head coach at parkrun sponsor VitalityHealth affirms that “interacting with others in-person is good for our mental health”, while Boom Cycle co-founder Robert Rowland adds that a Boom Cycle class is intended to provide an escape from daily life, as opposed to conflating your home- your sanctuary- with the place that you dump all of your stressors. In fact, a 2017 study found that working out with a group (in person) reduced stress by 26% and improved quality of life – proof that though virtual apps clearly instil their own sense of community, combining the two may promote better mental health. 

Where coaching is concerned, the absence of cues and supervision through virtual apps is something to be aware of. “Online training doesn’t allow for real time feedback on technique,” says Laura. “While an experienced and qualified coach in person can help you make immediate improvements on your movements.”

But that’s not to say we should avoid app workouts altogether. Laura suggests that virtual cardio or bodyweight classes are great for beginners exercising at home, since they require little technical skill and are less likely to cause injury. As for more complex classes such as resistance and weight training, many virtual fitness apps are beginning to introduce expert coaching cues akin to those in real-life sessions. Just bear in mind that these will be general, not personalised.

Strength Moves for Cyclists

So, are fitness businesses offering group exercise IRL threatened by the evolution of virtual fitness apps? “We’ve been continually growing since 2014 and cannot attribute any change to the rise of digital workouts,” says Robert of Boom Cycle. “I think the two will continue to co-exist and co-exist well. We have seen growth in both areas and we hope that this will only get more and more people into fitness.”

Andy of VitalityHealth, parkrun sponsors, agrees: “There is no sign of the popularity of parkrun waning and I predict this to grow. I don’t think it’ll ever be a case of either or, and many apps out there are inspiring and supporting people to get physically active in the first place.”

We concur. 

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